According to a recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the United States, once the world leader in the discovery and growth of crystalline materials, is now falling behind other nations.
Citing a decline in large U.S. industrial research laboratories and new investment by foreign governments as the cause behind this slippage, the report also singles out the U.S. Department of Energy's national laboratories as one of the bright spots, citing the Ames Laboratory both as a center for new materials research and as a training ground for the next generation of researchers.
While single crystals are vital in understanding the characteristics and properties of new materials, they also have applications in devices that involve semiconductors, lasers, precision timing devices, solar cells or high temperature operations, among many others. Your wristwatch, cell phone, GPS, laser pointers and even jet engines all depend on materials made into single crystals. Despite the potential for long-term rewards in many energy and information technologies, corporations have slashed research and development budgets for short-term savings, leaving America's once formidable industrial laboratories as mere shadows of their former selves. That's left the DOE's national laboratories (particularly Ames Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory) to lead single crystal research in the United States, with increasing pressure from well-funded research efforts abroad.
The 190-page report, Frontiers in Crystalline Matter: From Discovery to Technology was written by the Council's Committee for an Assessment of and Outlook for New Materials Synthesis and Crystal Frontiers In Crystalline Matter
Growth. The committee assessed new materials research, identified future opportunities and recommended strategies to help the United States regain its place at the forefront in development of new materials.
The report's executive summary paints the picture this way: "For much of the past 60 years, the U.S. research community dominated the discovery of new crystalline materials and the growth of large single crystals, placing the country at the forefront of fundamental advances in condensed-matter sciences and fueling the development of many of the new technologies at the core of U.S. economic growth. The opportunities offered by future developments in this field remain as promising as the achievements of the past. However, the past 20 years have seen a substantial deterioration in the United States' capability to pursue those opportunities at a time when several European and Asian countries have significantly increased investments in developing their own capacities in these areas."
A section of the report titled "Impact of the Decline of Education and Training Opportunities in the Field" draws a direct link between the decline in basic research at industrial laboratories and the subsequent loss of training opportunities for young researchers.
"In the past, many graduates would spend a postdoctoral period at one of the large industrial research laboratories and receive intensive training in crystalline matter discovery and crystal growth as part of an interdisciplinary team. For the most part, those opportunities are no longer available," the report states, and elsewhere notes that such multidisciplinary work also doesn't fit into the traditional departmental structure of U.S. universities, but it calls out the importance of the Ames Laboratory, along with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in continuing to provide advance training in this critical area.
"Smaller companies that still grow crystals for the industrial or government markets typically do not have the capacity to provide such training. Selected national laboratories have significant efforts in the growth of specific materials, most notably the Ames Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (for very specialized materials needed for the National Ignition Facility [NIF])."
According to Ames Laboratory's Director for Division of Materials Sciences and Engineering Tom Lograsso, Ames Laboratory typically has at least 10 graduate students and six post-doctoral research associates working in the crystal growth field at any one time. One big advantage these young researchers have is the ability to work with and for the Lab's Materials Preparation Center (MPC), recognized world-wide as a provider of the highest quality research materials, particularly rate-earth metals and alloys that are not available elsewhere.
"The institutional history retained by the scientific and technical staff of the MPC is invaluable in guiding our the next generation in the developing new processing approaches by drawing off the lessons learned with the rare earth metals," said Lograsso.
In researching the current state of discovery and growth of crystalline materials, the committee surveyed experts in the field, relying heavily on researchers from five Department of Energy-funded national laboratories which house significant materials growth efforts. Among those testifying before the committee was Ames Laboratory senior physicist Paul Canfield.
While the national laboratories can serve and are serving as hubs for crystalline materials research and work closely with a number of research universities, the scientists surveyed called for greater support for research and the need for even wider collaboration between the national labs and additional research universities.
"As outlined in the current NAS report, as well as in a 2003 DOE/BES workshop before it (Design, Discovery and Growth of Novel Materials For Basic Research: An Urgent U.S. Need) there is a need to recruit and train researchers in the sciences needed to design, discover and characterize novel materials," Canfield said. "Ideally, this would range from getting undergraduates excited about new materials research all the way to providing advanced training to post doctoral researchers and visiting scientists. The DOE labs have the breadth of experience and resources to do exactly this."
"In the case of Ames Lab, the conditions are actually as close to ideal as I can imagine. Being located directly in a large research university we engage and teach researchers of all ages," Canfield continued. "Given that over the past decade we have trained scientists who have now established their own research efforts at Stanford, Rice, Louisiana State University, Brookhaven National Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, as well as Grenoble, France, there is a clear proof that Labs such as Ames Lab can and will have a vital role in addressing this vital, national need."
The report concludes with five recommendations designed to once again make the United States competitive in discovery and growth of crystalline materials. These include development of a multiagency initiative to strengthen research efforts, establishment of "centers of expertise," opening of more educational opportunities, and promotion of interdisciplinary and collaborative efforts in academic programs and the field in general.
"Ames Laboratory has a long history of excellence in materials research," said Ames Laboratory Director Alex King, "and we plan to collaborate with the other national laboratories to provide leadership in addressing the concerns expressed in the Academies' report."
Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory operated for the DOE by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global challenges.
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